So they say you shouldn’t compare children – they’re all individuals. And there is of course some truth in that, I know that.
However, as a mum to three young children (age three, five and seven), I’m also aware of what nonsense it is to tell me not to compare. Comparing is what reassures me that my children are doing okay, whether they are walking, talking, playing and doing all the other things that children of their age are expected to be doing.
And so, I admit that I mentally compare their performance with the performances of their siblings and playmates. And professionally, as a speech and language therapist, I compare the performances of the children I assess against developmental norms, and draw conclusions about whether or not they are exhibiting signs of communication delay or difficulty.
In most cases, I am assessing a child because someone, be it a parent, family member, teacher or medical professional, has mentally compared the child against their peer group and decided that there may be a cause for concern.
Language development in the school age years
Often, however, parents stop comparing language skills once their child is talking in sentences. The problem with this is that language development is so much more than learning to talk. While the most obvious red flags for language delay can be spotted in the first five years of life, language development continues throughout the school years.
Language skills growth
By first class, your child might have a vocabulary of between 8,000 and 14,000 words, but by secondary school it’s about 80,000 words.
At five years old, if you ask direct questions, your junior infant might be able to clarify something they’ve said that you’ve found a little confusing. By nine years old they will be much better at recognising by themselves when they’ve been misunderstood. They’ll be more likely to clarify their meaning by rephrasing or adding words to their explanations without you having to ask them.
Between six and 12 years old, children become much more effective communicators. Language becomes more sophisticated, sentence structures become longer and more complex, and topics are chosen more tactfully.
In adolescence, understanding and use of popular sayings and sarcasm develops. They learn how to draw inferences and interpret the non-literal meanings of things people say. They become better at expressing opinions and their powers of persuasion improve.
So, sometimes it is only during the school-age years that higher level language difficulties begin to emerge. The impact of language impairment Specific language impairment (SLI), sometimes referred to as a ‘hidden disability’, often goes unnoticed or is misdiagnosed.
The impact of language impairment
Specific language impairment (SLI), sometimes referred to as a ‘hidden disability’, often goes unnoticed or is misdiagnosed.
As a speech and language therapist, I work with many children whose language difficulties have not been identified until they are well into their school years.
By this time they have begun to impact negatively on the child’s behaviour, academic progress and educational attainments, social interactions and friendships, self-organisation and overall self-image and feelings of self-worth.
Types of language difficulties
A child with language difficulties may exhibit difficulties in some or all of these areas.
Understanding the meaning of words and sentences. Does your child seem to have more than the average number of ‘fights’ with their siblings or peers? Or tend to make remarks that are unrelated to the subject in hand? Or ‘disobey’ you a lot? These can all be signs of receptive language difficulties – maybe your child just doesn’t understand the rules of the game or hasn’t fully understood what you’ve asked them to do
Many children become adept at masking receptive language difficulties. They rely heavily on your accompanying gestures, such as pointing e.g. “It’s bucketing down,” as you point out at the rain. Or they copy what everyone else is doing. If your child is always the last to do something, it might be that they’re just waiting to see what others are doing before following suit.
The ability to use words and sentences. While some signs of expressive language delay are obvious, such as grammatical difficulties (e.g. ‘sitted’ for ‘sat’), plenty of children are able to hold a conversation, ask and answer simple questions and form grammatically correct sentences – yet still have an underlying expressive language difficulty.
In such cases, the child’s vocabulary might remain relatively limited (e.g. things are always ‘big’, never ‘huge, enormous, gigantic or colossal’).
They may tend to lose their train of thought when telling you something, or struggle to create a logical sequence to their stories. If asked to explain, for example, the steps involved in making a cup of tea or a sandwich, the child might be at a loss, even though they can carry out the action without problem.
Their sentences, whilst grammatically correct, typically fail to expand and become more complex as they get older (e.g. “The lady was holding her baby. She was holding three bags too. She dropped her keys. She wasn’t able to pick them up” rather than, “The lady who was holding her baby and three bags struggled to pick up her keys when she dropped them because her hands were full”).
Remembering and processing information heard, and formulating an appropriate response.
Diagnosed in conjunction with an audiologist, because of the relationship with listening, auditory processing disorder (APD) is a complex disorder that shares characteristics with many other disorders and is most often misdiagnosed as attention deficit disorder (ADD or ADHD).
Children with APD will often move rapidly from one activity to another without completing anything, may look in the wrong direction to locate a sound, require repeated requests to do as they are told and find it more difficult to follow instructions or understand speech in noisy environments.
Whilst not always associated with language difficulty, poor organisational skills can be a sign of a hidden language disorder.
We all talk to ourselves – “What day is it? I mustn’t forget Chloe’s swimming gear, and Ben needs to bring €2 for the school play. I should have time to pick up the dry-cleaning at lunchtime before the school pick-up,” and so on. But imagine trying to do this if you have language difficulties.
If your child has difficulty with concepts of time (e.g. before/after, first/ next/last, tomorrow, next week), space (behind, beside, top/ bottom, near), then sequencing a set of events in a logical order – organising, categorising, prioritising and summarising information, then they’ll struggle to organise themselves.
Sometimes, it’s only at the time of transition to the less ‘scaffolded’ secondary school that these difficulties reveal themselves fully.
When the child is suddenly expected to follow timetables, navigate from one class to another, to keep track of homework due in on different days for different teachers, to have the right books with them for the right class etc. then the child who has successfully masked language difficulties throughout their primary school years can start experiencing unexpected but significant problems in secondary school.
Often put down to the child ‘taking time to settle’ into secondary school, such problems may in fact be a sign of a hidden language difficulty.
What do I do if I suspect that my child has delayed language development?
If you suspect that your child may be showing signs of language difficulty, the first step is to contact a speech and language therapist for advice. It may turn out to be nothing clinical but often it is and, for children who are struggling, intervention can make a tough time a whole lot easier. And as parents, isn’t that what all of us want for our kids?
More like this:
Speech development in younger children
How to encourage your child’s speech development
Autism – know the signs